Commonwealth citizens in Britain get to vote on Brexit too



When British citizens go to the polls today to vote if they want to remain in the European Union (EU), Singaporean student Andy Wong Ming Jun will also be there to cast his ballot.

As a Commonwealth citizen living in the country, he has the right to vote in a national election under British law. His vote would be for a Brexit, because he believes he is disadvantaged as a non-EU citizen.

"I find it unfair that law-abiding non-EU citizens… have to face a disproportionate number of hoops to jump through in order to seek a future in the UK after graduating from university, while EU citizens get to have a free pass by virtue of the passport they hold," said the 23-year-old politics and history undergraduate at the University of Hull.

A post-study work visa that allowed international students from non-EU countries to stay in Britain and work for up to two years after graduation was scrapped in 2012. Now, they have only four months after graduation to find work here.

The people of 54 Commonwealth countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and Sri Lanka, as well as Ireland, have voting rights here – a legacy of the British empire. Census figures from 2011 show that about 960,000 Commonwealth citizens living in England and Wales are eligible to vote. But this voting entitlement has not gone down well in certain quarters.

Think-tank Migration Watch argued that the right to vote in British general elections should be confined to citizens as well as people from countries that offer reciprocal voting rights, such as Ireland and certain West Indies countries.

A petition asking that only British citizens be allowed to vote in the EU referendum garnered more than 40,000 signatures in April. In response, the British government said that the franchise for the EU referendum is based on the franchise for parliamentary elections.

Singaporean Helena Lim- Poole, 43, concedes that it is not entirely fair that Commonwealth citizens who are here for the short term have a say in a national referendum.

"But I am not complaining. At least I have a voice in it," said the entrepreneur, who will vote "In".

Brexit jitters have hit her real estate and food import businesses. The property market has slowed, while the prices of food imports from Asia have started rising because of the weaker pound.

Ms Lim-Poole is concerned that the immigration issue has been played up by Brexiters and the press. But London has been home to her for the past 10 years, and she plans to be here for the long run. "For me, I have been paying my taxes, working hard as a foreigner based here. So far, I have not seen any hostility from any locals," she said.

'Remain' vote may spur home buys by Singaporeans

A burst of London property buying by Singaporeans could be unleashed if the Remain camp wins today's European Union referendum in Britain. Many potential buyers here have been waiting on the sidelines over the past few months until they see how the vote goes.

Sales of prime Central London property have fallen by more than half by some estimates, although experts feel volumes could recover quickly if Britain stays in the EU.

Management consultant Jimson Cheng, who owns a condo unit in Central London, said that while he is not selling, he has put off making any further investments. "I've friends with over 10 London properties who have decided to liquidate a few due to the uncertainty, and as prices are higher now."

He noted London's pull for property investors, with housing demand far outweighing supply. "The advice most people give is to hang on to your unit."

Mrs Doris Tan, regional director of London real estate firm Strawberry Star Group, said sales have been slower since the start of this year partly due to the referendum.

This wait-and-see approach has seen transaction volumes across all types of property fall by about a third, said Mr Alistair Elliott, Knight Frank senior partner and group chairman.

The best sales in the past few months have tended to be outside Central London (Zone 1). Central London continues to be popular with Singaporeans and Hong Kongers but only at prices up to about £1,200 (S$2,360) per sq ft, noted Mr Richard Levene, Colliers International's director for international properties.

Mr Elliott said should Britain leave the EU, the biggest short-term impact would be a run on the sterling, which could encourage foreigners to buy.

Sterling's drop in value spells savings for some

The sterling's recent drop has so far helped bank worker C.C. Tham save $3,500 on her daughter's school fees and rent in Britain – and the 48-year-old is hoping it will fall further if the country opts to leave the European Union in today's referendum.

Over the past week, money changers have seen a 20 to 40 per cent increase in sales of the pound, which has depreciated by more than 10 per cent against the Singapore dollar since August last year. The Singdollar hovered at around 1.97 to the pound yesterday, compared to 2.11 a year ago.

Analyst expect the referendum – the result of which is due tomorrow afternoon in Singapore – to have an immediate effect on markets, especially on the sterling.

In the event of a Brexit, the pound is expected to weaken to as low as $1.818, according to National Australia Bank's senior markets strategist Julian Wee. If Britain remains in the European Union, the pound could rise to as high as $2.12 against the Singdollar, he added.

Mrs Tham, who is paying for her daughter's four-year degree at the University of Edinburgh, bought about £20,000 at a rate of 2.154 last August. In March, she bought another £20,000 at a rate of 1.987.

"The amount I saved can pay for two or three air tickets for my daughter," said Mrs Tham. "I'm monitoring the rate and come Friday, I'll look at it again."

Clifford Gems owner Mohamed Rafeeq, 51, noted that most buyers are Singaporeans paying for their children's British school fees or going on holiday to Britain.

The president of the Money Changers Association, Mr Omar, 55, who goes by one name, said: "It's an uncertain time for money changers, especially those who bought more of the pound when it was low and are waiting for it to go up."